WANDA AND THE CAR MECHANIC
by Jean Baur
I’m not one of those people who make a habit of flirting with every man I see. For one thing, I’m too old for that. For another, I have other things to do.
But one Saturday—it was spring and I had just gotten out my shorts and bought myself this nifty top that has a v-neck front and back—I had to get some gas and decided to have the fellow check the pressure in my front left tire.
This is one of those things I put off. My front left tire is sagging and I watch it and wait. I even put off stopping for gas until the needle has been on empty for miles. How stupid, you might think, but I know my car and have a feeling for when empty really means empty or when it’s like one of those people who say things they don’t mean.
For example, there’s a woman at work who’s always telling us how broke she is and lots of times she doesn’t even chip in the one dollar we collect for office party birthday cakes, and just when I start to believe—God, she really is hard up—she comes in with a $200 outfit on—matching shoes, new purse and the expensive kind of stockings that look silky and smooth—not the dull and bumpy kind I buy at the supermarket.
So on this Saturday when the sun feels so good on my shy skin, I pop into a gas station that I haven’t gone to in years just because at that exact moment I think empty will very quickly mean that my car won’t move. I stop and look in my wallet.
Yes, I do the same thing with money. I go to the bank, take out a hundred dollars, put $10 in my wallet and the rest in the drawer. I think if I don’t have it on me, I won’t spend it. On this particular day I have $7 and change. I tell the young man that I would like $5 of regular. Please. I do not treat gas station attendants like indentured servants the way some people do. I hand him my keys because I have one of those locked gas caps—a leftover from when everyone was desperate for gas and might siphon out your tank when you ran into the drugstore for a tube of toothpaste. On my key chain are three silver cats and I could see that this attendant noticed them.
Now here’s a really nice thing—this fellow starts the pump and before I can say boo, he grabs the squeegee or whatever you call those window washing things, whips it through the air to shake the excess water off, and then cleans my front windshield, my headlights, and my back window. I watch his body lean over the front of the car. His shirt comes just a little bit out of his pants at the side and I see a patch of akin—just as white as mine—and I see the top elastic of his underwear.
“Hot day,” I say out the window.
“Nice,” he replies. “Real nice.”
“It’s about time, wouldn’t you say?”
He nods and asks me if I want my oil checked.
My oil? Do I want my oil checked? He’s squinting at me.
“Oh,” I say, “it’s probably okay.” I don’t tell him that I never buy oil at a gas station. I get it on sale at K-mart.
“Tell you what,” I say. “You see my front left tire? It’s low, isn’t it?”
He looks at it.
I look at him. He might be a year or two over twenty, he has dark brown hair, and one of those medium builds that are just right. He doesn’t bulge with muscles in some pompous way; he’s strong and agile and kind of compact.
He says, “Bring it over to the air pump once we finish here.”
“Fine,” I say. I glance at the pump. It reads $5.01. I wonder if he will charge me the penny.
The young man puts my gas cap on, locks the little door, and hands me my keys. His fingers touch my hand. The silver cats fall in a heap among the keys. I hand him $5. He smiles.
God, he’s got perfect teeth with little ridges on them like saws or pinking shears. The cutest little ridges.
You can tell a lot about a person from his teeth. I wish this guy had one of those shirts on with his name stitched over the left breast. Then I could tell you his name and see how that fits with what I learned about him from his teeth.
I guess it’s more a feeling than hard-core information. Like I couldn’t say—He loves broccoli—but I could predict that he’s a happy person, that he likes to eat, and that when he laughs he throws his head back. There were other things going through my mind about him, but they’re private.
So I drive over to the air pump and get out of the car. He’s inside the garage looking for the gauge. When he returns I tell him, “It’s the strangest thing. I’ve had this tire checked and there are no leaks, but it loses air.”
By now he is squatting down next to the tire. I am right next to him. He smells of soap and oil. His fingers are black so that if he grabbed me I’d have marks on my body. I’d have his fingerprints and hand prints where he touched me. He runs his hand over the tire. He looks up at me. I bend down knowing that my blouse dips in the front.
“You’re doing the right thing,” he says. “This tire is going to need to be replaced soon. So just keep doing what you’re doing.”
He puts air in it. He checks the gauge.
“Thirty-five?” I ask, knowing what I put in.
“You been driving?”
“A little,” I reply.
“I’ll put in thirty-three. That’ll be perfect.”
He does. The tire looks better. He stands up and presses the gauge back together
“Well, thanks a lot,” I say. “I appreciate it.”
I can tell he likes my blouse. But I can’t tell if he’ll watch me as I drive away. I put on my raspberry-colored sunglasses, fasten my seatbelt, and back up carefully so that I don’t knock over the outdoor soda display.
But what if I give it a little nudge? What if I knock the top layer of sodas off? Or maybe just one can hits the pavement and bursts open and squirts all over the place and he runs out to see what happened and I get out of my car and we are both covered with sweet Pepsi and then I say, “Here,” and I wipe his face with my blouse and he licks the soda off my chin and—
I stop my car. “God, Wanda,” I say to myself. “Get a hold of yourself!”
So I maneuver carefully around the display and see that he is watching me and I feel his eyes on my skin the way I feel the sunlight glinting and burning into me, and I wave a happy little wave so that he won’t think I’m lonely or desperate, and he waves back.
I wait patiently to pull out onto the road, my car purring, half-full of gas, the tire plump and steady. The silver cats jingle against the keys. I could go anywhere now but my car takes me home and there are two of my three cats waiting on the front porch. They rub against my legs. I talk to them and then go inside, throw my purse on the kitchen table and make myself a tall glass of iced tea. I go back to the front porch and sit on the glider.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it pussy cats?” I say. I glide. I drink my tea. The earth is waking up. My sensible side says, “Wanda, he’s a mechanic. A boy.”
My more interesting side has me back where we left off with the soda-licking episode, and since we are in full view of every passing car, he takes me inside the garage. Everyone is gone. He pulls down the sliding doors, puts up a Closed sign, and dusty light comes through the windows. There are nuts and pipes and mufflers and grease everywhere.
We don’t talk. He wipes his hands on a rag and clears a little space on the floor underneath a raised Ford Escort. Then he throws an old quilt on the floor. There are flies hurling themselves at the windows. I am still and calm, although my heart is racing. I wait.
“Now,” he says and takes my hand.
I tell him what kind of underwear he has on.
“How did you know that?”
“I got a glimpse when you were washing my windshield,” I say.
He throws his head back and laughs.
I pull him to me and run my tongue over the ridges on his teeth. He tastes sweeter than the soda, like something new that’s sprung out of the ground.
We stand face to face, looking at each other. His eyes are dark brown—dark with wanting. He kisses my neck and runs his tongue along the little dip where my blouse opens.
I put my hands on his head. His hands are underneath my blouse, caressing my back. His hair smells of shampoo and car grease. I am melting. He unhooks my bra and my knees buckle, but he is right there lowering me to the floor, leaning on his elbows over me.
“You’re awfully cute,” I say, laughing because if he doesn’t make love to me, I will die.
“You,” he says, as my shorts slide down my legs, “are beautiful. So beautiful. You have the—“
I stop his word with a hard kiss. We are past words. I only want him, his weight, his smell, his grease, his black fingernails digging into my back, his hard velvety penis finding me and pushing and pushing and both of us gasping and the flies going crazy and the light breaking over us, the hard floor whirling us this way and that, and then that shuddering moment when we’re not sure where we are or if we are one person or two.
I am covered with sweat and grease and sperm and my own sweet juices and he groans one more time and raises his head to look down at me.
“God,” he says.
“Umm,” I say, closing my eyes, holding him on top of me even though he is now limp as a cooked onion.
“Do you like broccoli?” I ask.
He hesitates. “What kind of question is that?”
“Just curious,” I murmur.
“Yes,” he says, “I love broccoli.”
And with that his mouth covers all my questions and tears stream out of my eyes because I knew it all along and the angry flies go on beating themselves against the dim light and we start up all over again, only this time it’s even better because we know each other now.
Education: BA with Honors, Lake Forest College, 1964-68
Relevant Employment: Worked as a freelance writer for Time/Life Books, McGraw Hill, Prentice Hall and Educational Testing Service. Taught classes in creative writing to diverse audiences including pregnant teenagers and deaf students. Currently work part-time as a Career Counselor using my writing and training background to help clients find new jobs.
Publications: “Station 18”, “How to Love A Fat Man” and “Guardian of the Bathroom Door”, short stories in The Bucks County Writer, 2001-2004. Poetry published in a number of literary magazines including Confrontation, The Cummington Journal and Old Friends, New Friends. Nonfiction: “My Life as an Eggplant” in The Vegetarian Times, 1978, and “How to Share Your Personal Space” in Bride Magazine, 1979. Also wrote entire issue of Kids Discover Magazine on the Panama Canal, 1995, as well as five years writing in communications for Educational Testing Service (1989-94).
Grants: The Vogelstein Foundation to write a film strip series on nonviolence in American History (1976); Poets and Writers to teach poetry writing to pregnant teenagers at the New York Foundling Hospital (1981); and Gallaudet University to teach creative writing to students at the New Jersey School for the Deaf (1993).
Awards: Finalist for InterAct Theatre Company’s Writing Aloud Contest; Notable Story from New York Stories Short Fiction Contest, 2002; The College of New Jersey Writers Conference: First Prize in Fiction for “The Real France,” 2001, First Prize in Fiction for “The Madwoman’s Revenge,” 1996, and Honorable Mention for “Wanda Fights Back,” 1995. H.E. Francis Award Finalist for “Wanda Fights Back,” 1993.
Residences: Attended The Cummington Community of the Arts, Summer, 1978, Aspen Writers Conference, 1977, Wesleyan Writers Conference, 1995.
Conferences/Workshops: University of Pennsylvania Writers Conference, 2002 & 2003, The College of New Jersey (1989-2003), The New School for Social Research (1983), and The 92nd Street Y (1975-80). Member of The Writers Room Advanced Fiction Workshop.
Representation: Wrote novels for children and was represented by the Meredith Bernstein Literary Agency (1982-89). Currently under consideration at Levine Greenberg.
Founded: Poets of the Westside: a literary journal and reading series on New York’s Upper West Side (1980-84). Contact Jean.